Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra Times columnist and author of Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorised Political Biography, What Goes Up: Behind the 2007 Election and Rudd's Way: November 2007-June 2010.
There's a simple reason foreign affairs and defence issues have only surfaced briefly during this election campaign: there are no votes in it.
The Coalition naturally dominates this political terrain, so it doesn't need to assert itself. In 2007 Kevin Rudd challenged this alignment when he presented a 'new vision' for Australia's place in the world. He sought to do this again last Tuesday in his Lowy Institute speech. Unfortunately, the old magic isn't working any more.
The initiative of moving the navy north represented both a genuine attempt to play to the Prime Minister's strength – his undisputed policy interest – and re-claiming the field politically. Today, however, Rudd's previously unchallenged credentials in this field are under assault. His 'new way' isn't cutting through as it once might have.
The same evening Rudd was booted out of office by his colleagues, he vowed he'd return. From that moment on he was utterly, ruthlessly, determined and nothing could stand in the way of his revenge. I'd written an (unauthorised) biography of Rudd prior to his election, and followed it up with another volume examining the causes of his downfall, before dusting my hands and thinking, 'well, that's it then'.
My publisher, Scribe's Henry Rosenbloom, wasn't so sure. He's well connected with the Labor Party, and that's why he approached me about writing another book. I phoned around again and checked the numbers, but quickly became convinced Rudd didn't have them then and wasn't going to get them, either.
Back then I was right. And that's when any normal person would have stopped attempting to scrape together support for another challenge. But Rudd's focus, his determination, isn't normal – he would do whatever was necessary to ensure he returned to what he believed was his rightful place.
A critical insight came to Rudd during that long, lonely period as he conducted his one-man campaign for re-election: our place in the world is, by and large, completely irrelevant to the concerns of the Australian voter. Even the majority of Caucus didn't give two hoots about the UN, Asia, or the international community. His reinstallation as leader would depend on his ability to convince the party that he was a different man. And the secret to this would be dispensing with his peripatetic reputation as a statesman.
The first time he resided in the Lodge, Rudd was obsessed with Australia's position in the world. Today it's relegated to an afterthought.
Take the G20 leaders' meeting, to be staged in St Petersburg later this week. The Prime Minister likes to claim credit for the G20's formation. It remains the pre-eminent international forum in which Australia participates as a significant player, and next year Brisbane will play host. If there was ever an opportunity for Rudd to return to the world stage, the meeting on 5-6 September is it. Instead, Rudd will face the electorate on the 7th. Priorities change.
Now, his gaze no longer ventures beyond the horizon of two-story bungalows and swimming pools that run along the edge of Western Sydney. According to the myth, these suburbs represent Labor's 'heart'. Rudd Mk 2 knows that, when it comes to marginal seat campaigning, foreign issues just don't rate.
That's why the election is being held a week before the date nominated by Julia Gillard. In a closed meeting with a couple of chosen political colleagues at Parliament House a few weeks ago, Rudd was firmly told not to delay calling the election. Every day he dallied, they warned, risked bringing the party closer to defeat. He was told to seize the moment. Ignore international irrelevancies like the G20, one of the wise men insisted, it will work against you.
This explains the enormous gulf between the earlier Rudd and today's version. On both occasions the PM has made his first trip to Indonesia, but look at the enormous difference between the motivations that underlay his visits.
In 2007, for example, the Bali meeting was all about climate change, a global concern. But since his restoration the focus has been relentlessly domestic. Rudd rushed to a bilateral meeting with Indonesia's president, but that was simply to demonstrate he was 'doing something' about asylum seekers. As soon as this message registered with the Australian electorate, the PM moved on. He didn't bother returning to Jakarta to participate in the attempt to find a real solution to the problem.
A similar agenda has dominated relations with Papua New Guinea. Everything has been focused on solving Australia's asylum seeker problem before the election and attempting to manufacture a policy that will remain credible until that date with destiny. Afterwards, well, that's another matter...
And this is why timing has becoming Rudd's critical issue. Previously, he could make an announcement about moving the fleet north and move quickly on to the next speech. He no longer has that luxury. Within hours, if not minutes, his proposals, even on his chosen territory like defence, are being ruthlessly dissected.
At the Lowy Institute last week, Rudd Mk 2 attempted to combine his former strength – strategy – with political advantage. It quickly fell apart. The electorate will no longer vouchsafe Rudd its trust. Voters discern an attempt to gain partisan political advantage in national security, and they don't like it. Time is catching up with him.
Photo by Flickr user Michael Rawle.